Fancy Food Finishers
From truffles to caviar, butters, and flowers, luxury ingredients add a signature stamp to any dish. Now these finer foods have crossed into the local-sustainable world, as niche producers pop up around the country. Here’s a look at how chefs are using their favorite finishers.
A classic French and Italian luxury item, truffle foraging has expanded to other parts of Europe, California, the Pacific Northwest, and even China.
At the newly opened Arlington Club in New York City, executive chef Frank Cervantes uses truffles and truffle oil sourced from Urbani, a gourmet foods supplier.
Cervantes favors the strong black truffles from France for his popular gnocchi “a la Parisienne” dish made from pate de choux versus potato flour dough, a nod to a similar recipe given to him by Laurent Tourondel, chef and partner of the restaurant. Integrating the pate de choux with a touch of grated truffle, Cervantes finishes off the soft and fluffy pasta with larger, thin shavings of the luxury item using Urbani’s special truffle grater with a serrated edge rather than a mandolin for consistent slicing.
Outside the short October to December black truffle season, Cervantes will swap in summer truffles, which have a black exterior, white gray interior, and a lighter, more delicate flavor and smell. He’s also used the truffles paired with fois gras and toasted brioche for a special Chateaubriand steak topping. When it comes to Italian white truffles, “they are on a whole other page,” he says, preferring to use the more fragrant, uber-gourmet, and double-the-price item sparingly in risottos and scallop dishes. All truffles, though, “are an easy sale,” says Cervantes. “People are aware of what truffles are and are familiar with them as a high-end product.” As a result, charging just a touch more for a truffle-laced dish is acceptable.
While some truffle producers suggest storing the mushrooms in Arborio rice, “I don’t recommend that,” Cervantes says, preferring instead to wrap the truffles in fish paper and store in covered, plastic containers in the cooler for no more than three days to prevent them from over-drying.
At La Merenda in Milwaukee, where chef/owner Peter Sandroni uses white truffle oil everyday, desserts get the ultimate umami treatment. “We take local Brunkow cheese, which looks like a piece of white toast with toasted edges, and pan sauté it in a little butter like Greek Saginacki so it caramelizes, then we add toasted walnuts, dried fruit, and a drizzling of the oil on top,” he says. “It’s a savory dessert for someone who wants only a hint of sweetness.”
Butters & Oils
From cultured and compound butters to truffle, avocado, walnut, hazelnut, and toasted almond oils, chefs are experimenting with these fine finishers more and more.
Some even make their own. At 15-year-old Nicholson’s in Cincinnati, executive chef Mark Bodenstein makes hayseed oil by literally going to a barn, scooping up a small bushel of hay, roasting it, and blending it into plain-flavored canola or grapeseed oil.
Hayseed oil sounds strange, he admits, but the local, house-made luxury signals true farm-to-table eating.
Bodenstein makes oil from items considered “non-edible,” like the hay, along with the wild mustard greens “found alongside every highway in middle America,” dandelion greens, clover, even vibrant green grass clippings, and pine pollen, shaved from the inner layers of pine trees.
For the hayseed oil, Bodenstein will roast the driest batch he can find in a 300-degree oven, blend it with a neutral oil, steep the mix for 24 hours in a warm place over the oven, and strain the finished product a couple times until clear and fragrant. “It tastes just as if you were chewing on it in a barn, with very earthy, woody flavors that take on the characteristics of the barn it comes from,” he says. He’ll then pair the oil with other produce and proteins from the same farm to keep the taste in the same terroir. Semi-sweet bee pollen, honey, and game meats like rabbit pair best with the hayseed oil, as does roast chicken and all types of beef dishes. “I think of what eats hay and work from there to come up with ideas,” says Bodenstein. The grass oil has similar pairings, while the pine pollen goes well with bird dishes and its own shavings—blanched, toasted, and tasting almost like potato chips.
“It’s really easy to pick up the phone and find apples and oranges, but it takes a little creativity to say there is a lot more edible stuff out there,” he says. “With a little research and thinking outside normal boundaries, you can find more foods that are not only edible but taste great.”
When it comes to basic butter, most chefs already know the wide-open boundaries for creative compound combinations. But European-style and cultured butters are earning more favor for their higher smoke point, richer taste, and heightened nutritional properties.
Chef Tyler Sailsbery of The Black Sheep Restaurant in Whitewater, Wisconsin, uses a European-style, cultured butter (Wüthrich) produced in his state by Grassland Dairy. With an 83 percent fat content, about a percentage higher than other European butters and much higher than traditional butter, the Wüthrich butter has a high smoking point for sautéing and baking, according to Althea Wirtala, sales representative.
Sailsbery says he favors the butter for searing and grilling steaks and other meats because it won’t burn like most. Award-winning pastry chef and bakery owner Peter Yuen in Chicago prefers the butter for making traditional French croissants for a rich, golden—not burned—color and taste.
To produce the small-batch butter, dairy from nearby farms gets treated with lactic acid and starter cultures, then allowed to “ripen,” or slightly ferment in a controlled environment for a day, says Wirtala. Similar to yogurt making, this process helps natural bacteria form and bring about that distinct, tangy taste. This is the same nutritional yogurt-based bacteria found to promote digestive health. The butter then continues on to the churning process, where a vacuum process helps push out air to reach the 83 percent butterfat mark.
The butter runs about one and a half times more expensive than common butter, but a little bit goes a long way, Wirtala says.
Caviar & Roe
Once thought of only as a specialty from the Caspian Sea, an overfishing of slow-to-reproduce sturgeon and a diminishing caviar supply in the late 90s has led to the influx of new producers in the U.S.
Atlantic Caviar & Sturgeon Company in Happy Valley, North Carolina, harvested 3,000 fish last year, and sold the fresh and smoked sturgeon meat to restaurants, Asian sushi buyers, and chefs sourcing sustainably produced seafood.
Slightly softer or less highly graded eggs are sold as “kitchen caviar,” used for sauces, and drying like a spice. Chef Nico Romo of Fish in Charleston tops deviled eggs with a touch of the black fish eggs.
Bottarga, Italian dried fish roe traditionally shaved over salads and pastas also have that umami boost chefs crave. Though nothing “new,” bottarga’s popularity has increased on menus around the country. “I have definitely seen an increase in demand, especially from chefs,” says Jeffrey Bergman with Manicaretti, an importer of Italian foods in Oakland, California.
Sold by the gram in “loaves,” chefs shave the roe over everything from egg dishes to savory custards, raw fish, pasta, and seafood salads.
Unique to Sicily and Sardinia, there are two main types: a mullet roe called bottarga di muggine and a tuna roe, bottarga di tonno, says Bergman. The roe is removed, salted, pressed, and sun-dried until very firm, and then oftentimes dipped in wax for preservation.
Cathy Whims, chef/owner of Nostrana in Portland has been buying bottarga for years from producers in Italy and Florida. While she prefers the milder mullet roe, she’ll spread the more pungent tuna roe on a buttered baguette.
“The classic way to serve bottarga is with spaghettini in an olive oil sauce,” she says. “It can also be served sliced thin with olive oil and lemon.” Recently Whims served it shaved over capellini pasta, with Pacific octopus and manila clams in a tomato-caper-pine nut sauce.
Nancy Oakes at Boulevard in San Francisco prefers the muggine as does Whims, shaving it over a Jidori egg yolk alongside King Salman a la plancha with asparagus and crispy Nebrondi mushrooms.
And at Bartolatta in Las Vegas, Chef Paul Bartolatta sources both Sicilian tuna (di Tonno) and Sardinian mullet bottarga (di Muggine) from suppliers in Italy for a classic treatment. Bartolatta shaves the muggine over a simple and light spaghetti dish with garlic, tomatoes, fresh parsley, a touch of saffron, and olive oil to let the roe shine.
“Bottarga is a very traditional Italian ingredient,” he says. “Our restaurant attracts well-traveled people from Europe, South America, Asia, and around the U.S., so they appreciate that we offer very traditional ingredients with classic preparations.”
At just 28 years of age, Marjorie Meek-Bradley has cast her mark on the Washington food scene. Fond of local, seasonal food, Meek-Bradley likes to garnish with edible flowers—stems, leaves, buds, and all.
Sourcing different types from Mennonite farmers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, she’ll layer the colorful, mild-flavored petals over pasta dishes, crudo, and seasonal vegetables. Candied and “crystalized” using an egg wash and a sprinkling of sugar, edible flowers also pretty up dessert dishes.
“Nasturtium leaves have a nice pepperiness, stronger than the flower,” says Meek-Bradley, using both for taste and décor. Tiny cucumbers with their blossoms attached get layered over sliced raw tuna with pickled golden raisins and a bit of cumin-spiked carrot puree with extra carrot shavings. “They taste just like cucumber, but not as juicy and slightly milder,” she says.
More herbaceous flowers pair up with fresh herbs as petit salads atop heavier dishes and fish. “I love bachelor buttons—they’re cute, with a pretty violet color and big center,” she says. “I peel off the petals and sprinkle them about.” Jumping Jack flowers, also sourced from the Mennonite cooperative, look just like little pansies with a mild taste.
Store edible flowers in air-tight containers lined with a paper towel. Flowers will keep three to four days in a cooler.